Christopher Ross views the mobile world a little differently than most entrepreneurs.
He worked at Microsoft for the better part of a decade, in positions including U.S. enterprise sales director, responsible for Windows and Office deployment and adoption. He started his own technology consulting business in 2010 and was later accepted into the Founder Institute startup accelerator in Chicago. He incorporated his startup, FotoJelly, in December 2011, with the goal of developing a suite of photo sharing apps based on a platform-as-a-service model.
Based on his background, he decided to make the app for Windows Phone first.
So what has it been like? Well, he doesn’t have to compete with Instagram. He won an ultrabook and a recliner in a Microsoft app developer competition, recognizing the promise of the FotoJelly app. (His mom got the La-Z-Boy.) But he has also struggled to get investors excited about the notion of betting on Microsoft’s mobile platform. (FotoJelly is currently in the middle of a crowdfunding campaign.)
GeekWire recently caught up with Ross via email for an inside look at one app maker’s experience developing for Windows Phone.
Why did you decide to develop first for Windows Phone? What are the challenges and opportunities?
Ross: There were 3 factors that influenced my decision: First, I wanted to develop on a platform and to devices I was familiar with, making it easier to work alongside the technical roles I brought on and tell the FotoJelly story from my own experiences. Secondly, I knew that if FotoJelly was accepted into Microsoft’s BizSpark program we could get developer tools and server licenses for little or no cost. That was a significant savings. Most importantly, I wanted a fighting chance to have our apps seen and adopted, even if it meant being a “big fish in a small pond” for a while. Seeing what the Microsoft marketing juggernaut was ramping up for WP8, my advisors and I we felt that if we built a good product that perhaps we could ride the coattails of their growth to a point where we could then develop for and gain visibility in the iOS and Android app stores.
Without question, the biggest challenge has been Microsoft’s decision to basically orphan WP7 in favor of WP8. The required development environment, lateness of the SDK availability, and cost to purchase devices hasn’t helped either. As a long-term strategy it probably makes sense, but it really puts startups in a difficult position. For example: do you stop your WP7 development? If so, what about current users of your app, who may not update their phones for 2yrs? With no SDK available, you pretty much sat on your hands or perhaps tried following Microsoft’s guidance to prioritize migrating your WP7 app to the Win8 app store. Well, that may not be a relevant path for your app, and could require training your developers as well. In my case, it’s a $1,500 expense just to buy WP8 devices, unlocked, for testing and demoing, helping my contractors upgrade their OSes and tools, and the “bench time” necessary to get competent with the new OSes. Deciding to halt development and wait for the SDK was a tough decision; and the time wasted almost killed my company. Again, I understand why they did it, but I think you see that impact in both the quality and quantity of WP8-specific apps available right now.
How do investors react when they hear you’re targeting Windows Phone first? What has it been like to try to raise money?
I like to joke that if I had just $10k for every potential investor who said “Looks nice. Let me now when you’re on iOS or Android” we would not be pursuing a crowdfunding campaign! In all candor, it’s been tough, trying to be taken seriously when making the case for Windows Phone as the first device you’re supporting. Pitching yourself as a company that’s initially targeting a <5% addressable market in a crowded app category is difficult, and I wonder daily if it was the right decision. We’d love to be one of a handful of startups that Microsoft, its employees and its fans would rally around, but I don’t know if that’s part of the culture any longer.
Can Windows Phone truly support its own homegrown apps like you’re trying to create, or will it have to rely on apps (and communities) with roots in other platforms? How will you create network effects?
One need only look at the Xbox to see an example of how a few “halo” apps (no pun intended) could dramatically improve Windows Phone’s position. That’s not just evangelizing of the platform but also seeking out startups developing unique apps, apps that extend beyond the “me too” generation of apps, that your target market wants and making some bets on their success in return for periods of exclusivity. I think that approach would be seen as a vote of confidence in their platform and its ability to win over users moreso than trying to get established apps to write to it.
Is Instagram a model for you?
No. I think what they’ve built is novel, but Instagram is to photo sharing what twitter is to telling a story. Maybe I would feel differently if I had a $750M exit, but right now I really just want to build something that actually solves a problem, offers enough value that a portion of my users want to pay for the service, and developers like the platform we give them to launch their own solutions on. With all due respect to what they’ve accomplished, we believe that when it comes to photo sharing, they’re addressing the 20%, not the 80%, e.g., most of our parents, friends and families.
As a third-party developer, what is your perspective on Microsoft’s Windows Phone developer support? What can the company do to improve?
I think it’s a developer support model for the industry, no doubt. Between BizSpark, TechNet, Microsoft Partner Network, they really seem to understand the importance of lowering barriers to the evaluation, training for, and usage of their developer tools and services. But the hardware acquisition costs are a significant barrier to startups. Were there a way to get $99 or even $199 devices (unlocked), I think you would see more developers exploring the possibilities. Frankly, I wish they’d had a WP7 buyback program with the major carriers to increase the availability of WP8 devices and capture some good buzz. Also, while I’ve recently made some contacts in the Chicago area, I wish they had more of a presence in the startup community here, the 3rd largest city in the US.
What has the transition to Windows Phone 8 been like for you?
Difficult. Remember, there wasn’t an SDK or devices available until late October. And while they’ve been good about making technical contacts available, our remarked that they’d been given very little training/experience on the OS, didn’t have devices themselves, and mostly were forwarding links to articles they found on the web. It’s gotten easier, but time is money for a startup and every day we’re not writing good quality code or shipping is one more day we’re not able to attract customers or investors.
How do you plan to make money, and how will you measure success?
I really admire Phil Libin of Evernote and the freemium model his company uses because it obligates you to focus on providing value to every customer, not just the ones paying you directly. From the outset we decided that a feature-rich app with non-intrusive advertising would be the way to go. Since then we’ve identified a handful of in-app features that we believe a subset of our customers would upgrade to a paid app to utilize. On the PAAS side, we have our API and a host of services that are best supported in a subscription model, targeting social media professionals, event managers, brands and advertisers. We are working hard to solidify our monetization plan early on, so as not to disrupt the relationship with our customers later on when our investors decide they want to start getting a return on their investments.
FotoJelly is available in the Windows Phone store.